Greenwood plans to get rid of the volunteer fire department that has provided part-time firefighters to the city for nearly three decades and will hire those firefighters as city employees by April.
Residents shouldn’t notice the change because they will mostly see the same faces if firefighters install their babies’ car seats, teach local elementary school students to stop, drop and roll, or are called to an emergency.
The change means the city is ending a contract with the Greenwood Volunteer Fire Department and hiring the organization’s staff of 70 as part-time city employees. The city also will cut the hours of the 18 volunteer firefighters who work more than 30 hours a week so they won’t be eligible for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and hire up to 20 more part-timers to work the extra hours.
The city is making the changes because of new health insurance rules coming under the federal Affordable Care Act and needed updates to a contract with the volunteer fire department, Greenwood fire Chief James Sipes said.
Currently, an unpaid, five-member board works with the city fire department to oversee the firefighters who work for the city through the volunteer fire department. But under the Affordable Care Act, the volunteer organization would have to manage its employees on its own to be considered a volunteer fire department. And it would have to hire and manage more part-time employees because it wouldn’t be able to afford health insurance for all of the employees working more than 30 hours a week, Sipes said.
All 70 of the volunteer firefighters get paid, but none of them are offered medical insurance, even though about 20 of them work more than 40 hours a week.
The city considered paying for medical insurance for the volunteers who qualified or hiring more volunteers to spread out the work so none of the firefighters would get insurance. Both were expensive options, since one would require the city to pay for insurance for some non-full time workers without them working directly for the city, and the other would require hiring full-time employees who aren’t firefighters and paying for office space for them, Sipes said.
If the organization had hired more firefighters, then it would have needed to hire at least two full-time administrative employees to oversee scheduling, hiring, training, disciplining and paying the Greenwood Volunteer Fire Department firefighters.
Hiring administrators or paying for health insurance for 18 volunteers were more expensive than the existing $1.65 million contract, and neither allowed the city to hire more full-time firefighters, which is better for the city, Sipes said.
“I would rather invest that money in a full-time firefighter on the street than an administrator somewhere else,” he said.
The volunteer program started in the late 1980s and was intended to keep the Greenwood Fire Department fully staffed without the expense of an entirely full-time staff. At the time, the city had two firehouses and maybe 1,000 emergency runs per year, Sipes said.
Now, with four firehouses to staff, 6,000 runs a year and a need for more experienced firefighters, the volunteer model doesn’t make as much sense, he said. About 15 to 20 percent of the volunteer firefighters leave annually to get full-time jobs elsewhere, which means the city is constantly hiring, buying equipment for and training new volunteers.
So, hiring more full-time firefighters will reduce the employee turnover and time spent training new volunteers, and create a more stable workforce, Sipes said. The city needs two volunteers for every full-time firefighter shift covered.
Greenwood would have had to pay for any additional costs of hiring administrators for the volunteer fire department, since the volunteer department exists only to provide the city with part-time firefighters. So, instead of hiring administrators to maintain the old volunteer system, the city decided to use the money to pay for additional full-time firefighter salaries, he said. Beyond hiring the three full-time firefighters, the cost of the transition won’t be more than the existing contract, he said.
The city isn’t renewing its contract with the volunteer fire department and will handle the training, hiring and other tasks itself, much as it has in the past. In the future, the city human resources office will manage writing job descriptions and other paperwork related to hiring, and no administrative jobs will have to be added.
This summer, the fire department will be able to hire three full-time firefighters, if the city council approves, and hire all of the volunteer positions, plus about 20 more. The goal would be to add more full-time firefighters every year and move away from the part-time or volunteer model, Sipes said.
“We’ve grown out of the size of a volunteer corporation,” he said.
Change in policy
The Greenwood Fire Department plans to stop depending on paid volunteers to supplement its full-time firefighting staff. Other fire departments in Johnson County already have moved away from that staffing model. Here’s what other fire departments did:
The town switched from the volunteer and full-time staffing model in 2012. Now, the fire department pays 26 full-time and 40 paid reserve firefighters.
White River Township
The township stopped supplementing its full-time firefighter staff with volunteers in 2004. The fire department now has 39 full-time firefighters and about 100 part-time.
The city has had full-time firefighters, with no supplementary staffing from volunteers, since the 1880s.